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You can ply the waters of Vancouver Island’s Clayoquot Sound in a kayak–or, if you prefer, view them from above.

I’M LOUNGING on the elevated outdoor deck of Tofino’s Inn at Tough City, a cup of sweet, high-grade sake and a plate of fresh Dungeness crab futomaki in front of me, trying to envision what this remote village must have looked like before all the adventure travelers arrived. As far as mental exercises go, in some respects this is an easy one, for the jaw-dropping natural setting around me—the cobalt blue waters of Clayoquot Sound and the fog-tipped, emerald slopes of cedar and spruce—has remained largely unchanged for tens of thousands of years.

But Tofino itself, perched on the tip of a slender peninsula that juts from Vancouver Island’s western shore, has undergone huge cultural and demographic shifts over the past two decades. Once upon a time, this was just another fishing and logging village, the kind of place where residents had to come to terms with extreme isolation (the town is a 4.5-hour drive from the nearest major airport in Victoria) and extreme rains (Tofino averages 135 inches of precipitation each year)—or else go stark raving mad. Today, the scene has changed: Lattes steaming at the Raincoast Café, galleries selling sculptures and paintings, and fresh-faced visitors signing up for kayaking and whale-watching excursions tell the story of the local economy’s transformation from resource extraction to tourism.

Precisely how little burgs like Tofino become the “It” place among the travel cognoscenti is always a bit of a mystery. Similar evolutions have occurred in Mexico’s San Miguel de Allende, a town encircled by mountains in the state of Guanajuato that is known for its Colonial architecture and natural hot springs; and in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which lost some of its quaintness to legions of tourists and Texas retirees lured there by the scent of piñon and by the town’s adobe mystique.

Environmental activism, however, played a leading role in shaping present-day Tofino. In one of the largest episodes of civil disobedience in Canadian history, hundreds converged on the town in 1993 to protest old-growth logging practices, and over the course of a highly publicized yearlong campaign, footage of the place was delivered to television sets across the country. To landlocked citizens in places like Edmonton and Toronto, Tofino’s sweeping beaches and world-class surf breaks; tracts of virgin temperate rain forest (the largest in North America); and web of inlets populated by gray and humpback whales must have looked enticing.

American travel magazines “discovered” the town not long afterward, and soon, publications were trying to one-up each other with better photography and more bedazzling accounts of up-close whale encounters. When Clayoquot Sound—the approximately 865,000 acres of mountains, forests, rivers, waterways, and coastline that surround Tofino—was named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2000, it not only protected much of the area from loggers’ saws, but also gave the region yet another public-relations booster shot.